40 years later: ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ classic ‘Turkeys Away’ episode inspired by Atlanta station

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Originally posted on Thanksgiving, November 22, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

My annual tradition is to re-post this story about “WKRP in Cincinnati’s” classic “Turkeys Away” episode I wrote a few years back. I have since seen a 2012 oral history of the episode and have amended the story to reflect that. Also, the creator of this show Hugh Wilson passed away earlier this year. 

Although the late 1970s sitcom CBS’s “WKRP in Cincinnati” about a wacky cast of radio station characters was never a monster hit, one particular episode has stood the test of time and is still talked about four decades later.

Called “Turkeys Away,” it featured a botched radio promotion inspired in part by something that happened at classic local top 40 station 790/WQXI-AM - known as “Quixie in Dixie” in its heyday. (It was for a time popular sports talk station the Zone and now airs a Korean language station. Times change!)

For a Thanksgiving Day giveaway promotion, WKRP's hapless general manager Arthur "Big Guy" Carlson thinks it would be a great idea to give away turkeys by throwing them out of a helicopter. The turkeys come crashing down as reporter Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) is seen providing play by play. (We do not see the turkeys themselves.) Noting they are hitting the ground "likes bags of cement," Nessman cites the old Hindenburg line, "Oh, the humanity!"

Later, covered in turkey feathers, a dazed Carlson returns to the station and utters the line that has stuck like stuffing in the lining of your stomach: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”

The show was created by former Atlanta ad executive Hugh Wilson, who based some of the characters and antics from QXI, a powerhouse Atlanta top 40 station back when AM radio ruled.

Dr. Johnny Fever, played by Howard Hessemen, was based in part on "Skinny" Bobby Harper of WQXI. Carlson, the general manager played by Gordon Jump, was based in part on Jerry Blum, the WQXI general manager. Fashion-challenged Herb Tarleck (Frank Bonner) was a stand-in for long-time Atlanta radio executive Clarke Brown.

According to Blum's son Gary, this disaster was inspired by a much less horrific turkey giveaway Blum supposedly conjured up in the late 1950s in Dallas for KBOX when he dropped turkeys off a flatbed pickup truck in a shopping center parking lot.

Gary told me years later that his dad never did anything like that again. “The public went nuts fighting over the turkeys and it was a mess,” Blum said. “That was about the whole story. Hugh Wilson, the writer of the series, was a friend of the station when he was in the ad business in Atlanta. He used that story, along with other funny stories, and embellished them to come up with the many story lines on ‘WKRP.’ To my knowledge, the turkey drop was never repeated.”

Blum told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1996 that he actually uttered the words, “I didn’t know turkeys couldn’t fly, ” similar to Carlson’s words on the show.

Curiously, former WQXI executive Brown in a 2012 oral history with historian Stephen Bowie insisted a comparable turkey drop happened in Atlanta.

“The turkey drop was actually a real incident,” Brown told Bowie. “It was at a shopping center in Atlanta; I think it was Broadview Plaza, which no longer exists. It was a Thanksgiving promotion. We thought that we could throw these live turkeys out into the crowd for their Thanksgiving dinners. All of us, naïve and uneducated, thought that turkeys could fly. Of course, they went just f**kin’ splat.”

"People were laughing at us, not with us," he added. "But it became a legend. There were other stories of this nature that were embellished [on WRKP]; that one was really not embellished that much. Although the turkeys were thrown off the back of a truck, as opposed to how it was depicted on the [show]."

Gary Blum, in 2018, saw that quote and said that Brown is clearly mistaken. “Quixie never did any type of turkey drop,” he said. “I am positive. That’s how myths and legends grow!” But he did wear a special “Turkey Drop” T-shirt on Thanksgiving this year to mark the occasion.

Courtesy of Gary Blum

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Whatever the story, fans would recite that “as God as my witness” line to Wilson all the time. “I didn’t realize people would remember it a quarter century later!” Wilson told me in 2011.